06 July 2012 at 15:57 BST

Hidden depths

Nuggets of gold or smoking guns can be buried deep in an organisation's information mine. Having the tools to unearth them is vital, counsels Nigel Cannings

He reckons he's found something

How many ears have you got? Enough to listen to everything your team is saying on the ‘phone? Enough to listen to everything your customers are saying to you? Probably not.
How quickly can you read? Probably not quickly enough to read every email, instant message or tweet directed at you and your company.
Even before the information technology age, we were drowned in correspondence. Today, no-one needs to be told that we are sinking, and we actually learn less about our businesses because we are bombarded with messages and correspondence.

Ruinous ignorance

Are you the unlucky recipient of dozens of copied emails, often containing multi-page attachments? Do you find that people then assume that you have read them?
One of my correspondents has an email signature that states clearly that unless he is in the ‘To:’ line, and he is specifically asked to read something, you can assume he hasn’t. I wish I were that brave.
Not knowing what is going on in your organisation is never a good thing, but in some industries it can be ruinous. I almost feel sorry for some of the banks at the moment. It appears they have got so used to banker-bashing that they have decided to bash themselves. Just ask Barclays who knew what and when – because the regulators certainly will be.
Ignorance is never a defence in law, nor can it be an excuse in business. It’s your responsibility to understand what your staff is doing and what your clients are saying. All of which sounds immensely good in theory, but is it possible in practice?
The way most businesses monitor is through the use of structured systems and, up to a point, that is very effective. Financial transactions respond well to that technique – it is an area where computers have been an enormous help, as they can keep track on millions of transactions at once, and yet still detect and report the tiniest discrepancy.

Information dashboards

Project methodologies help greatly to track, monitor and report when things go wrong. This type of structured reporting is good at producing easy-to-digest management information dashboards that can be used quickly to identify and drill into problems.
But there is a huge volume of information that cannot easily be structured and yet contains business-critical knowledge. This is the information that swirls around you all the time, such as Word documents and emails, as well as the more ephemeral variety, such as voice calls.
Indeed, the issue of voice is a tricky one.
Increasingly, regulators are moving towards insisting that telephone calls are recorded, either to ensure that consumers are being treated fairly in the sale of certain types of product, or in the financial markets to create evidence of conversations about trades. Recently, Britain’s Financial Services Authority has insisted that even mobile ‘phone calls are recorded in a trading environment, which has proved to be an expensive and difficult task for many.
But, for some executives, recording telephone calls is becoming increasingly attractive. Three calls between Citigroup executives were supposed to contain critical evidence about the EMI takeover.
With $8billion at stake, no-one had irrefutable evidence in the form of a recording, and as one juror said: ‘They were just ‘phone calls, and ‘phone calls are not solid evidence.’
Yet simply having a recording is just the first step – you need to do something with it. No call centre is complete without an army of people listening to recordings of calls on a random basis.

Damage potential

It’s far worse, often, having that type of potentially damning evidence and not knowing what it contains, than not having it at all. In-house lawyers at big US banks are resisting mandatory recording furiously because they know that in litigation, every recording needs to be handed over, and if there is an incriminating piece of information, someone will find it.
Where does this leave us? Ideally, all data should be searchable, preferably from one interface. We are all so used to Google now that it’s difficult to understand why we can’t go to work, type in a search term, and find out what our own company knows about a given subject.
Businesses also need to employ automated systems of mining data to force hidden but useful information to the surface. Just look at Twitter and its trending mechanism to see what can be done.
Companies with hundreds of thousands or millions of pieces of information should remember that somewhere in there might be a golden nugget, or a smoking gun.

Nigel Cannings is the chief technology officer at London-based Chase Information Technology Services


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